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OPINION, UAE Results 2017, Students Passing, Schools Failing?

OPINION, UAE Results 2017, Students Passing, Schools Failing?

by Jon WestleyAugust 29, 2017

We have been here before. Results across the UAE have been, on the whole, fabulous. But we did not expect less than this. This was always going to be a fixed result with examining boards guaranteeing not to disadvantage the guinea pigs sitting new exams and the widely accepted muddle of their implementation.

Talking about results is so difficult because no one wants to take anything away from any of those sitting examinations this year. But the truth is we knew that the reality of the new exams was never going to hit this year and (rightfully) students would be protected. Passing the Maths GCSE required only 18% of answers to be correct.

This is not new. We have seen the chaos before with changes to curricula. And this is of course right. Teachers had so little time to prepare what have often be entirely new topics, in some cases the new GCSEs seeing content pulled from A Level. The new linear GCSEs and A Levels are a very serious attempt to get to grips with grade inflation – but arguably the horse has already bolted.

The lack of past papers too made the whole endeavour frankly a nightmare for everyone. And of course, not all subjects have transitioned – in fact very few so far. Expect more chaos in the next two years as more subjects beyond the less than a handful including English Literature and Mathematics we have seen so far moved to the new system.

We can expect too some more protection to ensure that results do not fall off a cliff as these come on stream.

The new grades, depending on your view, are better late than never or a total calamity. They allow a new A* plus in Grade 9 – and the whole top end is designed to better separate the high performers. But how did we get to a situation where we needed 9 different grades?

Many universities are asking why we simply do not write percentages scored on each paper. Even after bedding in, many question whether numerical grades between 1 to 9 will make any sense, to anyone. Many will remember the simpler A to U grades. Essentially you were on a spectrum of A to C – and it really did not matter much as long as you scored a C – pretty difficult in its own right. Getting an A was pretty much unheard of – we did not need A*s or a new fangled Grade 9.

And the bigger picture is of a British System now with little consistency. International variants have different requirements to standard IGCSEs, and IGCSEs in different parts of the UK have not all followed the 1 – 9 route. Employers and universities have a minefield.

Take one step up from this and we also have a system in which instead of 2% going to university we are approaching 70%. UK universities this year have faced a mass of oversupply, partly the result of Brexit, but many will say equally the result of greed as universities bathe in the light, read swamp, of ever rising fees. Many Russell Group universities have handed out unconditional offers as if they were sweeties to try and meet their intake targets.


Speak to many academics and you will find a bitterness that swathes of students are arriving at university without the skills, a result of inflated results over the last decade and university’s grasping at the honey money pot. Students too are now demanding proper “teaching” rather than lectures. Self sufficiency has transformed into a new culture of hand holding as students need bridges to catch up to the once heady academic requirements of university.

Many teachers will candidly admit that the previous system was deeply flawed. Many students were able to endlessly re-sit exams to get the “right” grade, and a system in which modular coursework rather than linear exams made up the bulk of defining success or failure was always going to risk abuse.

Linear exams of course are equally flawed, but in different ways.

A two hour do or die at the end of two years of study arguably never made much sense – and it is questionable that exams are the best way of judging either intelligence, ability, potential or the work invested by a student. The return to exams too is throwing up some worrying indicators that girls will suffer as examinations restrict the ability of girls to shine in comparison with coursework.

The pressure is on to hand out higher grades at university too – grade inflation is ripe everywhere – students are looking to see where they can maximise their chances to get a first or 2i in in an employers market where everyone has a degree now and degrees are no longer enough to say anything meaningful or differentiate you.

Little wonder that in the UK this year the talk is of apprenticeships.

The best of these offer fast tracks to senior management in some of the top company’s in the world with time out given to study for a degree whilst actually working. Of course, in apprenticeships, the degree is paid for by the employer – and students are clamouring for these when they can avoid debt, learn on the job, be paid and get a two year plus head start over the unfortunate peers who stupidly went to university…

You would think in all the endless coverage of O’ and A’ Levels that BTEC and technical education was irrelevant. The truth is it pretty much had been. In the UK the common perception was that “thick” people did BTEC. Certainly many teachers saw BTEC as the only home for those students they saw as being hopelessly unqualified to study A Level, but nevertheless now required to stay at school until 18. BTEC in many ways was allowed to become the CSE equivalent when we had O Levels. This of course must change.

Technical education is every bit – and some would say much more important – than academically engineered A Levels. What on earth do we need academics for in the post-industrial world in which traditional jobs are facing redundancy in the face of robots and technology (and don’t think lawyers or teachers are safe ….). The best BTECs now give young men and women skills – real skill to go out in the world and actually do something. The move to T Levels in the UK, which will be given equal prestige with A Levels cannot come soon enough.

So what does all this mean to our children?

As many parents will know, there are no answers beyond worry. The world is changing at the speed of thought. University once an option is now a demand that guarantees not a job but debt.

Schools in the UAE have not yet caught up with apprenticeships. Our children should have schools battling for apprenticeship options with P&G, Boeing, HSBC, Microsoft… Schools in the the country need to start focusing on opportunities with business.

University is not the be all and end all.

Young men and women in the UAE deserve to have the same options UK students have. And the truth is, we have many fabulous schools – and outstanding students, that would be in demand in British apprenticeships. UAE businesses too must start opening up apprenticeship opportunities here …

On a positive note, many of the best UK curricula schools have at last caught up with importance of BTEC. But more investment is needed. T Levels will require significant investment in facilities in subjects relevant to the UAE and hopefully the future – media, hospitality, energy, telecommunications, transportation…

GCSEs and A Level results still matter. Our students do deserve credit for outstanding results this year. But the picture is much bigger than this.

IGCSE students must now think very hard about the subjects they will study for A Level – or BTEC, or IB CP – which often uses BTEC as its work component. A Level students need to think not only of the subjects that will survive the technology revolution to come in the next decade, but also whether the debt is worth its price.

The biggest thing, short term, UAE schools, and regulators can do for their students is to get to grips with apprenticeships and easing the transition from one to the other.

Rarely today will you hear voices questioning the current system for fear of taking away from the hard work of students. And we must not let the above take away the praise due to all those who have shone this year in their results in UAE schools – and that by the way includes the many great teachers we have.

But equally we cannot keep silent about what is really happening around us. The education system and the job market it serves is in flux. Both are facing the biggest changes in its history – and those changes are very far from being understood, let alone secured.

About The Author
Jon Westley
Jon Westley is the Editor of and UK. You can email him at jonathanwestley [at]

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